A “flight test”
in ground effect

The art of flying is to throw yourself at the ground and miss.

Mike Swendsen, “BH”

Saturday, May 16, Cu Nim Gliding Club. The day looked great, beautiful blue skies, the lift should be there, it was going to be a good day for flying. There was a cold front that seemed stalled just to the north and there were clouds forming all around the field. Cloud streets were forming all along the mountains west and even out into the prairies to the east. This was a day when you could go places!

This was the first flight of the year in my own glider, an HP-16. My partner had had the glider out for a week in Golden and had a lot of good flying. But I hadn’t flown anything but the Blaniks for the last few weekends.

I rigged the ship and pushed it out on line. One plane was ahead of me and gave me time to do a final positive control check and settle my mind on the flight ahead. I was just going to fly and get used to the aircraft again. Everything looked good, the tow-plane was ready and off we went. Upon release, the lift was a little elusive to start with, but finally I found it and the day was on. I flew around the area, to High River, down to Longview and then over to the foothills, where I could climb over 8000 feet, then up to 10,000, and south towards Chain Lakes. Everything was going well, I had been up for over three hours and was getting comfortable again. I decided to test the glide back to the field and headed back. I heard some of the more experienced pilots radio that they were headed in also, and I decided to wait until they had landed before heading for the circuit.

I was high so I pulled on some flaps and started descending. I got to the IP at about 800 feet and proceeded downwind. I was in lift almost all the way while adding more flap and running just a little fast to keep my altitude down, turned base at 700 and flew a long base leg with enough flap on to keep descending, and at about 400 I turned final. I was still a little high and cranked on my flaps to full to get down on my aiming point.

That’s when the unthinkable happened.

As I was putting the nose of the ship down and cranking on the flaps I heard a loud bang and the flap crank handle came off in my hand! By the time I realized what had happened my speed was over 90 mph and I was over the threshold of the runway, still high.

Since we have a 2800 foot runway and I had no idea of the status of my flaps, I decided that I would get down on the field and use my wheel brake to slow down. As I tried to push the nose of the aircraft down, the only thing that seemed to happen was that the tail lifted — I couldn’t get down.

I was truly in ground effect and not losing much speed at all. As the end of the runway and its fence rapidly approached, I decided to land in the next field, and I hopped up over the fence and was preparing to settle down into that pasture. But I still couldn’t get down. My speed was still fairly high and the far side of this field was rapidly approaching. At the boundary were two more barbed wire fences guarding a road and a telephone line. I had little choice but to stay in ground effect and go over the fence and under the wires.

Finally my speed had bled off enough to get my wheel on the ground and use the brake as I had originally planned.

I had gone over a mile and a quarter in ground effect! I had no idea that I would or could go that far. I don’t know if the choice to land straight ahead was the best that I had, but it worked this time. Luckily I had almost two miles of landable field in front of me. If I had been landing in any other direction I couldn’t have made that decision. I would have been forced to choose to go up and try another direction or try to sideslip to bleed of my speed and altitude. I radioed back to the field and let everyone who had seen me on the ground and in the air know that everything was fine, and I started to walk back to get help to retrieve my glider. This had been a memorable first outlanding!

I wondered how much I have depended on the hardware for glide path control; in all of my flights and landings, I have always used either flaps or spoilers. This was my first landing without them. Maybe some thought should be given to learning how to land without glide control hardware. I know I have been thinking about it!

Comment from a spectator

As one of the pilots who had just landed and was waiting beside my glider half way down the runway, I was amazed to see Mike zoom by at a good rate of knots with no flap on. At four or five feet off the deck he kept going and going like the Energizer Bunny, floated over the down-wind fence, then got smaller and smaller as he soared away down the far pasture and vanished from sight over a midfield hump while I and everyone else watching the scene unfold were expecting disaster at every moment.

Mike was lucky. The active runway was the only one with 1/2 mile wide clear fields ahead, so he wasn’t forced to do a high energy ground loop to stop, and he still had energy to clear two more fences a mile after the normal touchdown point. An article on ground effect in free flight 3/90, gives a reduction in induced drag of 29% for a 15m ship at 10 feet agl and 48% at 5 feet!

Mike was unlucky. The weld failed just when he had excess energy to dispose of but little extra time or height to consider an alternate course of action. I don’t know what I would do below 400 feet with the nose well below the horizon and a flap crank free in my hand. At that point he was mostly along for the ride, but he did the most important thing right — faced with the emergency, he flew the airplane!

Mike is a piano tuner by trade, and I think he now has a deal to keep the harp of his guardian angel in concert tone.

Tony Burton

Free Flight  June/July 98 Page 5 and 20